UPDATE: The erroneous statement "a black Japanese akoya farm iss gearing up for future production on the northwest side of Japan" was originally included in the article but has now been corrected. Akoya pearls do not naturally occur in black. CPAA regrets the error.
Nashville, Tenn., April 25, 2018. CPAA Foundation member Joshua Israileff of ASBA spoke about saltwater pearls on Monday afternoon at the 2018 American Gem Society (AGS) Conclave in Nashville, happening April 23–25. The annual affair draws both AGS members and industry goers who attend for the robust education programs. Israileff spoke about saltwater pearls—ASBA’s niche—at last year’s event, and his class was so packed that AGS requested an encore.
The vice president of operations for the Sarasota, Fla.-based family-run firm first touched on the history of pearls, including how natural-pearl dealers sued Mikimoto for what they thought was the sale of imitation pearls until marine biologists helped to clarify the cultured pearl process and expedite its acceptance. Israileff also discussed how ocean conditions (including warming water temperatures) affect pearls and how Japanese pearlers gave South Sea pearls their name due to the position of their growing regions (“All south of Japan,” explained Israileff). The now-defunct, Japanese-instituted Diamond Policy, meanwhile, existed to protect the proprietary culturing process developed by the Japanese and required Japanese citizens alone to implement the techniques at pearl farms outside of Japan. The policy also mandated that all pearls, grown anywhere in the world, be sent to Japan for sales. Israileff’s fave historical fact? Kokichi Mikimoto’s marketing stunt of boiling competitors’ pearls in oil because the father of cultured pearls deemed them so substandard to his own.
Joshua Israileff of ASBA Pearls speaking at the 2018 AGS Conclave in Nashville, Tenn., on Monday. His topic? Saltwater pearls.
Israileff then discussed oyster varieties. Tahitian pearls grow in Pinctada margaritifera oysters, and the minimum millimeter thickness of their nacre must be 0.8. (That guideline was instituted by the Tahitian government after overproduction in the late 1990s and early 2000s led to the export of myriad highly flawed pearls.) Pearls from South Sea, or Pinctada maxima, oysters—producers of white and golden pearls—have an average nacre thickness of 1.5 mm because of the enriched waters where the oysters live. (Thus, no government-issued standard is necessary.) As for akoya pearls, born from akoya oysters in colder waters, they routinely have 0.3 mm of nacre thickness.
In terms of production, Pinctada margaritifera oysters are largely collected as baby spat in the wild. Spat collectors scoop them up with nets, which the tiny creatures affix themselves to for a two-year growth cycle. Pinctada maxima oysters originate from a mix of both spat and breeding in hatcheries because of the rarity of some with lip colors like gold. Pistachio-color pearls are also rare, though they are not bred in hatcheries.
A full house at the Saltwater Pearls seminar at Conclave!
Once oysters reach maturity, grafting with polished shell beads occurs in the mantle tissue. The seeded oyster requires monitoring for up to three months, with periodic X-rays helping to determine if beads were accepted or rejected. Accepted beads could grow into beautiful round or semi-round pearls after two years, while rejected beads could pave the way for the creation of keshi or non-nucleated pearls—the organism’s attempt to soothe the irritated spot once occupied by a bead.
“My favorite comparison is wine,” says Israileff. “The first graft is the smallest but has the best chance of having a pearl be round and beautiful. The second graft can take a similar-size bead, but the pearl won’t be as nice or clean.”
After two grafts, shell beads start to scrape the oyster’s fatty tissue and are more susceptible to rejection or the creation of circlé- and baroque-shape pearls. No matter the number of grafts, though, oysters in the water longer than two years at a time run the risk of animal and pearl loss due to predators, ocean elements, or red tide. “Farmers are rolling the dice that they can get a 20 mm pearl or lose their money entirely when oysters are left in the water longer,” explained Israileff.
When all varieties are prepared for sale, similar colors are typically paired with one another unless items are purposely used to create multi-strands of different colors. In those, size uniformity is key. In general, white and golden South Sea pearls offer a thicker nacre and a richer color. Australian white goods and golden pearls from the Philippines (goldens are the rarest to find in the wild, and CPAA benefactor Jewelmer specializes in growing them) generally command a premium over pearls from Indonesia and Myanmar. In the realm of Tahitian pearls, peacock strands take top dollar, while eggplant colors generally cost less. Pistachios, too, are hard to find, so they can be pricey to purchase. Akoya pearls, meanwhile, are renown are known for their super-slick lustrous surfaces.
Israileff also addressed treatments—look for pools of dye around drill holes and know that the rosé color of akoya is not natural—and took questions. Polishing and buffing of pearls with walnut shells routinely occurs to remove dirt and enhance sheen, though bleached pearls crack and nacre flakes. Natural pearls always have a gritty surface—“an imperfection, slight divot, or bump,” he noted.
Brothers in life and in business! Nicolai Israileff (left) with Joshua